The Poverty War who knows best

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					                        The Poverty War: who knows best?

                                      Warren Snowdon

                          Federal Member for Lingiari
              Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern Australia
              Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Indigenous Affairs

          Address to the ACOSS Conference, Sydney, 24 November 2006
                            Check against delivery


There is a huge challenge in having a discussion – a dialogue even – about the
underlying causes of the poverty and inequality that bedevil so much of rural and
remote Australia.

Those who are courageous enough to defend the rights of – and advocate the interests
of – people living in poverty must know that in the current climate they risk being
attacked as apologists for welfare dependency.

This reflects the prescient observation that we are at war, a poverty war, ‘a battle for
the hearts and minds’1.

This is not to say we have a war on poverty, unfortunately; what we have instead is a
war about what poverty is and is not, just as we have a war about Australian history,
or Australian values. Hunter notes that:

        ‘The debate started over some rather technical details of measurement,
        but quickly became bound up in questions of cause and response
        revealing stark differences in philosophy and choice, freedom,
        responsibility and the role of government’2.

And this is precisely where we find ourselves, with the majority of the Australian
community either ignorant of or denying that poverty is a real issue on the
contemporary Australian landscape. But there is no escaping that rural poverty is an
historical problem in Australia and, of course, it takes many shapes.

The so called dying towns of rural Australia have long been the subject of periodic
public alarm.

Currently drought related hardship on farms has been centre stage.

The problems confronting remote Aboriginal townships have also commanded a great
deal of media attention.

  Hunter B.H., ‘Revisiting the Poverty war; income status and financial stress among Indigenous
Australians’ in Hunter B.H. (ed) Assessing the evidence on Indigenous socioeconomic outcomes: A
focus of the 2002 NATSISS, CAEPR Research Monograph No. 26, Canberra: Centre for Aboriginal
Economic Policy Research, Australian National University, 2006, p 91.

My address today will focus on one such township: Wadeye, in the Thamarrurr region
in my own electorate of Lingiari. Wadeye, as we will see, is a community mired in

Yet whilst Wadeye is an isolated Indigenous community, not everything there, or in
other indigenous communities, is totally different from various non-Aboriginal parts
of rural Australia.

In some ways Wadeye also presents a caricature of a much broader range of regional

For example, like in many other places, it is a settlement founded in another era, and
now its future economic viability presents a major challenge.

It is a rural locality in deep crisis, for which there is no easy or ready solution.

Like many non-Indigenous towns it lacks services and infrastructure.

But there are important conflicting interests, and there are no one-size-fits-all

As with elsewhere, governments have expressed their sincere concern and brandished
quick-fix emergency solutions.

They don’t want to see problems that are experienced locally (whether they be
through lack of services or the effects of drought) as requiring national commitments
and adjustments that may entail some pain.

And again, as elsewhere, the media interest is episodic. They want a good story, but
not the responsibility for helping to resolve underlying problems.

And there is this recurrent hope, sometimes misleadingly promoted, that just around
the corner there is the prospect of some sort of economic miracle. The latter might be
in the form of a mine, a major pipeline or railway, bourgeoning tourism – or a sudden
eruption in small scale and innovative private entrepreneurialism.

As part of this insincere wistfulness is the idea that, at least for Aboriginal
communities in the Territory, once the shackles of land rights are broken, everyone
will enjoy the fruits of a new land boom and the joys of borrowing to become home

In other words, if we believe in it enough, and cleanse ourselves of the imagined
socialism of the past, some sort of spontaneous generation will kick in.

This is not quite a cargo cult mentality, because it is not the locals who necessarily
believe it, but there is the same element of fantasy.

Only this time, the fantasy is non-Indigenous and derives from a happy state, long ago
and far away, where everyone could realise their Great Australian Dream.

In Wadeye, as in other Indigenous communities, this approach reveals the incapacity
and even unwillingness of Government to accept, understand and come to terms with
the particular cultural and historical contexts in which they exist.

This marks the key difference with non-Indigenous rural towns.

The war over poverty in the Indigenous domain is characterised by a real battle for the
hearts and minds driven largely by government attempts – particularly the
Commonwealth Government – to impose its will and solutions.

Wadeye: a community in strife

Wadeye is far from an ordinary rural settlement. However, though it is the largest, it is
not dissimilar to many other Aboriginal townships in the Northern Territory. Wadeye
and the Thamarrurr region, to which it is central, have a population of about 2500
people. This population is expected to double in the next 20 years (Taylor 2004). It is
situated some 270 km by air south west of Darwin and sits on the lowlands between
the Fitzmaurice and Daly rivers. For months at a time over the wet season the region
is inaccessible by road.

The Thamarrurr region is located on land granted as Aboriginal land, with inalienable
freehold title, under the provisions of the Commonwealth Aboriginal Land Rights
(Northern Territory) Act 1976.

The Thamarrurr region and its place in Australian Bureau of Statistics geography

Wadeye is the sixth largest town in the Territory and is a community which has been
in crisis for a long period, with endemic poverty.

The church-run school is overcrowded, unable to accommodate all the children – if
they all went to school.

Unemployment is rife.

A large part of the population lives on someone else’s land, a product of past
displacement of people from their own country.

Health is atrocious, with morbidity and mortality levels vastly in excess of those for
the nation as a whole. The community reportedly has the highest incidence of
rheumatic heart disease in the world.

The Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) has made a major
contribution to understanding Wadeye by linking demographic profiles with
economic data.

The work of John Taylor and Owen Stanley has been particularly significant.

Taylor3 and then in collaboration with Stanley4 identified these elements in Wadeye’s

Age distribution
   • 100 people are aged over 50;
   • 500 people are aged 25-50;
   • 1500 people are aged under 25;
   • 700 people are of school age;
   • 60-80 babies are born into the community each year;
   • The population of the Thamarrurr region is likely to expand at a rate of four
       per cent per annum;
   • The death rate is 24 deaths per 1,000, which is 18 per cent higher than the
       equivalent indirect rate of 20 deaths per 1,000 calculated for Aboriginal
       people; and
   • Compared to the total non-Aboriginal population of the Northern Territory,
       overall Aboriginal death rates in the Daly SLA are four times higher.

  • There are 144 habitable homes with an occupancy rate of 16 persons per
  • Another 122 dwellings will be needed by 2023 just to maintain the present
      level of occupancy;
  • The cost of meeting agreed standards in housing occupancy is estimated at $52
      million); and
  • If a rate of seven persons per dwelling was to be achieved, an additional 465
      dwellings will be required by 2023.

  Taylor J, Social Indicators for Aboriginal Governance: insights from the Thamarrurr region,
Northern Territory, CAEPR Research Monograph 24, Canberra: Centre for Aboriginal Economic
Policy Research, Australian National University, 2004.
  Taylor J and Stanley O, The Opportunity Costs of the Status Quo in the Thamarrurr Region, CAEPR
Working Paper 28, Canberra: Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National
University, 2005.

  • Less than one-fifth of all Aboriginal adults in the Thamarrurr region are
      employed, and the vast majority of these are tied to the Community
      Development Employment Projects (CDEP);
  • 82 per cent of Aboriginal income is attributable to welfare sources (90 per cent
      if the CDEP is included);
  • Aboriginal people occupy less than half of the 130 or so jobs outside of
  • 40 per cent of adults may be classified as unemployed in so far as they are in
      receipt of the Newstart Allowance; and
  • There is an ‘opportunity cost’ to the region of $43.8 million per annum, while
      foregone Indigenous employment incomes amount to $26.3 million per annum

   • In 2003, only half of the region’s school age population was enrolled at
      school, and only half of those enrolled actually attended classes – even then
      mostly on an irregular basis; and
   • Some 10 per cent of adults aged under-30 years (almost all male) are in
      custody at any one time, and many of these are repeat offenders.

Wadeye: a COAG disaster

Wadeye is one of the localities selected by the Council of Australian Governments
(COAG) for a set of trials in Aboriginal rural improvement. Eight localities were
chosen – one from each state and one from the Northern Territory. The idea was to
provide more flexible programs and services based on priorities agreed with each of
the trial communities.

The other trial sites chosen were:

New South Wales                      Murdi Paaki
Queensland                           Cape York
South Australia                      Anangu Pitjantjatjara (AP) Lands
Tasmania                             Northern region
Victoria                             Shepparton
Western Australia                    East Kimberley
Australian Capital Territory

COAG trial sites

The COAG trials were promoted as a recognition that responsibility for dealing with
Indigenous issues spread across any number of departments and agencies and through
multiple programs has been, and remains, often uncoordinated.

The trials were: ‘…to improve the way governments (The Commonwealth and the
NT) interact with each other and with communities to deliver more effective
responses to the needs of Indigenous Australians…’5

The Commonwealth’s ‘Lead Agency’ for the Wadeye/Thamarrur trial is the
Department of Family and Community Services, based at the Indigenous
Coordination Centre, Casuarina (Darwin) and for the Northern Territory Goverenment
it is the Department of the Chief Minister.

Key objectives for the COAG trials were to:
   • Tailor government action to identified community needs and aspirations;
   • Coordinate government programs and services where this will improve service
      delivery outcomes;
   • Encourage innovative approaches traversing new territory;
   • Cut through blockages and red tape to resolve issues quickly;
   • Work with Indigenous communities to build the capacity of people in those
      communities to negotiate as genuine partners with government;
   • Negotiate agreed outcomes, benchmarks for measuring progress and
      management of responsibilities for achieving those outcomes with the relevant
      people in Indigenous communities; and
   • Build the capacity of government employees to be able to meet the challenges
      of working in this new way with Indigenous communities.

Who owns this process?

Minister Vanstone said: ‘Signing this agreement is a big step forward in providing
better services to remote communities… It will vastly improve the way that the

    Council of Australian Governments, Communiqué, 5 April 2002.

Commonwealth, Territory and Thamarrurr work together in the Wadeye community.
Clearly, this is a new way of working together to provide services’.6

Subsequently, Vanstone and other senior figures in government have gone on to boast
about the successes of the COAG Trials – at Wadeye and elsewhere. Claims about the
success of trials before their completion and evaluation are, of course, commonplace7.

Like so many government programs, even those styled as trial or demonstration
projects, there was no inbuilt provision for evaluation of the COAG trials. This was
despite many promises and numerous warnings and requests. What evaluation has
taken place has been on a limited basis, and after the event.

And then, as is also so common, the relevant assessments have been kept secret. One
of these focuses on the Wadeye COAG trial.8 Coming as it does from a former senior
Commonwealth bureaucrat, Bill Gray, this report is quite temperate. However, though
it only deals with processes (rather than outcomes) it still has not been officially

Gray said Thamarrurr has raised the question as to why the Government could not
respond to the crisis in Wadeye in the same way as it did to the tsunami disaster in
Aceh and to Cyclone Larry.9

Good question.

He found that the people of Wadeye quickly lost confidence in the trial’s Steering
Committee process, that there was confusion about priorities, that there was a lack of
focus on what could actually be achieved, that departmental silos continued to
dominate and that there was a general lack of communication in any direction.10

Steering Group meetings in late 2005 consisted of 29 representatives from different
government departments, but not one Aboriginal person from the region.11

As for streamlining, Thamarrurr found it went from administering 60 funding
agreements to more than 90 – each with separate guidelines and reporting
requirements – over the three years.12

Most damning was the finding that – in a community in which housing and
overcrowding plays a major role in the widely publicised social problems it

  Anonymous, ‘Plenty of praise for Wadeye back in 2003’, National Indigenous Times, 31 March 2006,
p 7.
  D’Abbs P, Togni S and Bailie R, ‘Health services reform and research: Lessons from evalkauting the
Katherine West Coordinated Care Trial’ in Otim, Anderson and Scott (eds), Economics and Indigenous
Health Care Policy, Centre for the Study of Health and Society, University of Melbourne, 2004, pp
  Gray B, ‘Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Trial Evaluation, Wadeye, Northern Territory’,
25 May 2006.
  ibid, p 13.
   ibid, p 15.
   ibid, p 5.
   ibid, p 15.

experiences – the COAG trial delivered four new houses in three years, during which
time 15 houses were rendered uninhabitable13.

Remember, at this point, Taylor’s estimate that another 122 houses would be needed
by 2028 at current occupancy levels, or another 465 houses to bring down occupancy
to only seven people a house.

By my reckoning, that’s nearly five houses a year to reach 122 houses by then and
about 19 houses a year for the lower occupancy figure.

Four new houses in three years does not quite make it.

Gray reported:

            ‘With regard to housing, the community has seen four houses for
            Indigenous occupants built over a period of three years. During that
            same period some 15 houses were made uninhabitable for periods of up
            to three months through gang violence and an additional 200 babies
            were born into the community. In these circumstances, there is little
            prospect of the chronic overcrowding being reduced in the foreseeable
            future despite the efforts being made under the COAG trial’.14

The lessons from the Wadeye COAG trial are compelling:

       •    They clearly illustrate how governments failed to measure up to their
            ‘commitment’ to work with Indigenous communities and address Indigenous
            disadvantage and poverty;

       •    They point to an inability of government agencies to be flexible, innovative or
            responsive to a changing environment or to come to terms with the need to see
            Indigenous stakeholders as partners and respect them as such;

       •    They starkly demonstrate how Indigenous communities have been deluded
            into thinking that general statements of intent will bring about change in the
            bureaucratic culture sufficient to make a difference; and

       •    They presume that expressions of commitment mean that there is knowledge,
            understanding and identification with the communities concerned.

Or put more simply, COAG does not and cannot work the way it’s been set up and
because it does not recognise the extent of Indigenous poverty.

Not that the COAG non-Indigenous partners are alone in this.

Neither the participants of the recent G20 meeting in Melbourne – nor many of those
protesting against their meeting, I suspect – have the slightest idea of the extent of
poverty throughout Indigenous Australia.

     ibid, p 12.
     ibid, p 12.

People simply don’t see places like Wadeye for what they are.

They are not failed social experiments so much as pockets of serious and sustained
poverty and no-one in public policy appears to have grasped that simple fact, or gone
on to deal with the causes of that poverty.

Failure compounded by ideology

As if the lack of progress under COAG wasn’t bad enough, over recent months the
Wadeye community has been the subject of some appallingly bad treatment by the
Federal Minister responsible for Indigenous Affairs and his Department, the
Government’s lead agency in the COAG trial.

This treatment, which at the moment is only perpetuating the inequality and poverty
of the region, illustrates my last point perfectly.

The Minister has blundered into Wadeye at the fag end of the COAG trial with a new

Without negotiating with the community, he and his officers have decided it would be
just the place for a 99-year lease scheme.

Under this scheme, provided by recent legislative amendments to the Aboriginal Land
Rights (Northern Territory) Act, communities lease town land under what is called a
‘head lease’ to an entity outside the community, which then grants sub-leases to
whoever wants to lease the land.

The Minister has been enthusiastically selling the idea for some months as a panacea
for the economic woes of Aboriginal towns.

Leasing the land, he says, will open up access to the free market and allow Aboriginal
people to own businesses and build their own homes.

The subtext from that piece of dog-whistle politics is clear to all of us.

What is significant about this superficial response is that it came into being without
any discussion or consultation – let alone negotiation – with any Aboriginal
organisation or person.

It is as if it sprang fully-formed from the minds of the Minister and his advisers
without any contact with the real world whatsoever and particularly without any
consideration of what land – and therefore leasing the land for generations – means to
Aboriginal people.

If the proposal is deficient, the way in which the Minister has attempted to foist it on
Wadeye and other places – essentially through blackmail – is simply unacceptable.

He stood over the Tiwi and said: lease your town land and we’ll give you $10 million
for the secondary school on the Bathurst and Melville islands.

And he told Wadeye, with its chronic housing shortage: lease your land and we’ll
provide you with $9.5 million for new housing.

That’s about 20 houses, which is a start.

But the people of Thamarrurr wanted to think about it a bit more, so now the pressure
is on.

What the Minister is now saying is: you cannot have the $9.5 million until you lease
your land.

On ABC Radio just last week, the Acting CEO of Thamarrurr, Dale Seaniger, said:

           ‘…[P]eople are very concerned about the Government, any government,
           having control over their land…You can’t separate the land and the
           people….they wouldn’t be interested in going [for a lease] to the extent
           of 99 years. I mean, the life expectancy of the Aboriginal person is
           something like 58 years’.15

Mr Seaniger went on to say that, in any case, lease arrangements had to be negotiated,
a point which the Minister has obviously failed to grasp:

           ‘He says he’s been here to talk, but mostly…he hasn’t been doing a lot
           of listening and we really would like to talk to the Minister about the
           way forward…’ 16

And, he revealed that Thamarrurr had for some time been talking to the Northern
Land Council about how they could set up 20 to 40 year leases that would be tied to
service agreements with the Council – agreements to deliver health, education,
policing and so on.

If you like, its Wadeye’s version of the Shared Responsibility Agreement – one of
which they, rather than the Government, dictate the terms.

But this example of Aboriginal initiative is not good enough for the Minister.

He has got the housing money sitting in a trust fund and it won’t be released until the
lease is signed.

To add to that, a service provider funded by the Australian Government has been told
to stay away from the community – on other words deliver no services – until after the
lease is signed.

Mr Seaniger told ABC Radio that getting the money was critical: ‘…[A] new
subdivision is almost complete…we’ve lost a whole season [for building] this year;

     Interview with Dale Seaniger on ABC Radio Darwin, 17 November 2006.

we’ve had 80 new babies born this year and we haven’t had any new houses…we’ve
gone backwards’. 17

What Mr Seaniger told the ABC was ‘bullying tactics’ is no way to advance public
policy; it’s no way for Ministers of the Crown to act and it will not come anywhere
close to dealing with Wadeye’s poverty and crippling disadvantage.

It is simply ideology run riot.

What hope?

As well as being a national disgrace, the Thamarrurr experience is illustrative of how
the Howard Government has failed comprehensively to come to terms with the depth
of poverty wracking so many Indigenous communities across Australia.

It has failed to see this for what it is; a national crisis. And, it has failed to accept the
responsibility to address it.

As with the crisis in many rural communities, the Government has failed to see the
obvious need for a comprehensive national strategy or to make the necessary
resources available to make a tangible impact.

On the other hand, there has been every effort made by the Government to
sensationalise, in concert with a compliant media, examples of sexual abuse, violence,
substance abuse and other indicators of social dysfunction without any attempt to
contextualise these occurrences and to see them as key indicators of poverty.

The most shabby example is the recent denigration of whole communities –
generations even – for an alleged outbreak of child abuse in one instance off the back
of a television report which was not only sensationalist, but misleading and

As Professor Fiona Stanley noted:

           ‘This isn’t an Aboriginal problem…child abuse is seen in non-
           Aboriginal communities wherever there’s poverty and there’s
           marginalisation and wherever there’s alcohol abuse and… [in] every
           colonised group in the world’.18

All the while the real issues are not being addressed, and to our shame Indigenous
Australians remain living in dire poverty, with little hope of change.


Failed trials in government-community cooperation, such as at Wadeye, do not
provide us with a model way forward; despite all the associated hype.

     Interview with Professor Stanley on ABC Radio Darwin, 18 May 2006.

Its lessons are more about how not to approach problems in rural and remote
Australia. Some of these are as follows:

•   Many of the problems related to rural inequality have society-level causes.
    Therefore, they require society-wide solutions and the national government has to
    accept prime responsibility for dealing with them;

•   But just as assuredly externally imposed solutions will not work, there must also
    be ownership at the local level. Our solutions must be flexible and negotiable.
    There must be the development of true partnerships, not unequal relationships
    where governments use their power to impose their will;

•   In the Indigenous context this means accommodating the need for self
    determination and accepting that ownership of solutions must be local;

•   Solutions must be built on genuine efforts to see that the role all of us need to play
    in addressing Indigenous poverty is properly understood. For example, affluence,
    inequality and poverty are closely linked. One cannot change without the other. If
    we are going to deal with climate change, rural hardship or the short life
    expectancy of Aboriginal people, this means all-round adjustment – some of
    which will be discomforting. It also means that all parties will need to work in real
    partnership, negotiating solutions and accepting responsibility;

•   Governments need to be much more accountable. The impact of government
    policies and programs must be monitored and evaluated. And, to promote
    accountability, the results must be reported in a meaningful, digestible and timely
    way and be publicly available. This can only be achieved by a well resourced
    body at arm’s length from government and commercial interests;

•   There must be accountability to the people to whom services are provided. Not
    only should the Government as a whole be publicly accountable, but so should
    individual agencies who have the responsibility for policy and the provision of

•   For the part of people outside of government, we must become much more
    intolerant. That is, intolerant of the cynicism and short term expediency of so
    much that is portrayed as directed at fixing the problems before us. As part of this,
    we must expect quality accounting and reporting. We should not put up with
    accounts of problems and interventions that do not tell us all we need to know to
    make informed assessments; and

•   We also need to move beyond commonplace situations where Commonwealth,
    State and Territory governments are able to conveniently buck-pass
    responsibilities between jurisdictions. Responsibilities for outcomes must be far
    less ambiguous.

To these general principles we must add particular caveats for dealing with
Indigenous Australians:

   •   We must acknowledge that while Wadeye provides a good case study, the
       reality is that Indigenous poverty and inequality are a national disgrace and
       that there is a national crisis which successive governments have been
       unwilling to accept, confront or deal with;

   •   That we recognise that Indigenous Australians belong to many nations, that
       they have may different historical experiences, different languages and
       cultures as well as different expectations.

   •   That an important part of dealing equitably with Indigenous Australians is that
       we respect, recognise and support distinctly Indigenous representative
       structures at local, regional and national levels;

   •   That nothing less than full consultation and negotiation of policy proposals
       and other matters is appropriate;

   •   That we need to support among Indigenous peoples a sense of ownership and
       control of their lives: in other words support their self determination;

   •   Governments must recall the standards of accountability they have demanded
       of Aboriginal communities, organisations and previously the Aboriginal and
       Torres Strait Islander Commission. Governments and their agencies must
       adhere to at least the same standards in developing Indigenous policy, and
       delivering services to Indigenous people; and

   •   In the context of the COAG trials, governments must explain to the
       community of Wadeye – and the Australian community – what went wrong,
       who is accepting responsibility, and what action is being taken to bring those
       responsible for the failure of the trials to account.

We have the experience to beat Indigenous poverty, indeed even to win the wars.

But we must show that we have the will to do it.


Anonymous, ‘Plenty of praise for Wadeye back in 2003’, National Indigenous Times,
    31 March 2005, p 7.

Council of Australian Governments, Communiqué, 5 April 2002.

D’Abbs P, Togni S and Bailie R, ‘Health services reform and research: Lessons from
    evalkauting the Katherine West Coordinated Care Trial’ in Otim, Anderson and
    Scott (eds), Economics and Indigenous Health Care Policy, Melbourne: Centre
    for the Study of Health and Society, University of Melbourne, 2004.

Eversole R, McNeish J.A. and Cimadamore, A.D. (eds.), Indigenous Peoples and
     Poverty: an international perspective, London: Zed Books, 2005.

Gray B, ‘Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Trial Evaluation, Wadeye,
     Northern Territory’, 25 May 2006.

Hunt J and Smith D.E., Building Indigenous Community Governance in Australia:
     preliminary research findings, CAEPR Working Paper No. 31/2006, Canberra:
     Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National
     University, 2006.

Hunter B.H (ed.), Assessing the Evidence on Indigenous Socioeconomic Outcomes: a
     focus on the 2002 NATSISS, CAEPR Research Monograph No. 26, Canberra:
     Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National
     University, 2006.

Mitchell J et al., Indigenous Populations and Resources Flows in Central Australia: a
     social and economic baseline profile, Alice Springs: Centre for Remote Health,

Saunders P, The Poverty Wars, Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2005.

Taylor J, Population and Diversity: policy implications of emerging Indigenous
     demographic trends, CAEPR Discussion Paper No. 283/2006, Canberra: Centre
     for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University, 2006.

Taylor J, Social Indicators for Aboriginal Governance: insights from the Thamarrurr
     region, Northern Territory, CAEPR Research Monograph 24, Canberra: Centre
     for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University, 2004.

Taylor J and Stanley O, The Opportunity Costs of the Status Quo in the Thamarrurr
     Region, CAEPR Working Paper 28, Canberra: Centre for Aboriginal Economic
     Policy Research, Australian National University, 2005.


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